Parks, gardens, temples and shrines (such as Yasaka Shrine in the Gion District, above) abound in Kyoto. We spent one morning touring many of Eastern Kyoto’s famous gardens and temples, and all but a few were jam-packed with school children on field trips. It’s easy in Kyoto to get temple fatigue, so after lunch we went to the fabulous Kyoto Handicraft Center (well, I thought it was fabulous; Dennis took a nap in the lobby) that showed how dyeing, weaving, woodcarving, metalworking, ceramics, paper folding and other traditional art forms are created from start to finish. No wonder these hand-made items can be so expensive!
The following morning we decided to go on a guided bus tour of Central Kyoto. It was an easy way to reach some of the city’s most famous sights, such as the Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle and Golden Pavilion and have some of what we saw explained to us in English.
The Golden Pavilion was particularly impressive. It is a former shogun’s retreat turned into a Zen temple that features, in addition to a wonderfully landscaped garden, a three-level pagoda covered in gold leaf jutting out onto a small lake to reflect all that gold.
Here and at Nijo Castle we were astounded not only by the number of tourists but the school groups. Judging by the thousands — I’m not exaggerating — of uniformed children visiting these historic places, you’d never know Japan has a very low birth rate. As this was a group tour with a schedule to keep, we were not able to spend much time at any one place, but it was still worthwhile to learn a few stories behind the places.
One cultural attraction that is truly a sight to behold was Sanjusangen-Do, a temple dating back to 1266 that houses 1,001 gilt statues of the Buddhist deity Kannon and another 28 guardian statues whose images have their origin in ancient India. These statues were made in the 12th and 13th centuries and have held up well since then. I was glad we visited this temple on our own so we had more time to take it all in and let large groups pass us by.
Even though Kanazawa was my favorite of the two cities we visited post-birding, any trip to Japan would be incomplete without a stop in Kyoto. It’s a visual feast for anyone who appreciates Japanese gardens and architecture. It’s tempting to rush from temple to temple snapping photos to take it all in. Unfortunately, most vacations these days allow precious little time for the admiration of each tree, each rock and each reflection in a pond so carefully arranged by Japan’s master landscape architects. We certainly could have used more time to slow down and imagine what the garden designers must have been thinking and feeling when they set out to enhance nature’s beauty.
Our time in Japan came to a close right as the rainy day began, and we departed a gray and rainy city on the bullet train back to Tokyo to catch our flight out, sad to be leaving this marvelous country. The people are delightful, trains run on time, the natural scenery is postcard-pretty, you can safely drink tap water anywhere, and the food is good if you don’t mind lots of fish and not much in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s easy to see why so many people fall in love with the culture. I certainly did, and Japan is very high on my list for a return visit.